Career Services Finds its Way

Career development offices are navigating the post recession hiring maze by finding new ways to satisfy more demanding employers and readjust the great expectations of the Millennial generation.

Career Services Finds its Way

MBAs entered their programs in 2007 thinking that the jobs—and salaries—of their dreams awaited them upon graduation. Imagine their surprise when the markets crashed, the economy foundered, and the jobs they’d anticipated vanished. In 2009, the U.S. experienced the greatest slowdown in new hires since the 1982 recession. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global economy shrank for the first time since the Great Depression .

Now imagine being a business school career counselor, tasked not only with finding job openings for students when recruiters had all but disappeared, but also with bringing students’ high expectations quickly—and abruptly—down to earth.

Students and counselors alike quickly had to come up with Plan B, says Pam Stoker, assistant director of the graduate career center at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business in Fort Worth.

“Students asked us why employers weren’t coming to campus. And we answered, ‘Haven’t you read The Wall Street Journal?’” says Stoker. “These students were still denying that the financial collapse would affect them. But reality came crashing down on them when they started attending career fairs and weren’t seeing the employers there.”

But the downturn had at least one upside, according to many career service directors. The tough times inspired many career offices to step up their games. “The events of 2008 really pushed career services to think more creatively about ways to engage employers and students,” says Susan Brennan, director of career services at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “We let students know that the days when they could sit in their dorm rooms in their pajamas and look for jobs on their computers are over.”

During the recession, many in career services also cast a wider net to approach a more diverse set of employers, says Kip Harrell of Thunderbird Global School of Management in Glendale, Arizona. “We had been in a ‘pull’ mode where recruiters would knock on the door and schedule visits,” he says. But after the crisis, he and his colleagues went into full-on “push” mode. “We were the ones knocking on doors,” he says.

In many cases, career counselors have found that their new guerrilla tactics have made them more resilient, more creative, and ultimately more effective. Now that the economy is turning around, these more hands-on strategies are serving them well when it comes to getting students engaged, excited, and ultimately employed.

Operation Outreach

When companies stopped beating down business schools’ doors for new hires, career development offices had to start approaching employers that weren’t traditionally recruiters of MBAs, says Karen O. Dowd, executive director of the graduate career services and corporate engagement office at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business in Colorado. “Offices began to reach out in a more concerted way to small- and medium-sized companies, to regional players, to healthcare, not-for-profit, higher ed, and government.”

“Our targets were different,” agrees Harrell of Thunderbird. “We weren’t just approaching Fortune 250 companies anymore.”

As students began to consider a broader range of career opportunities, they also started to think about why they enrolled in business school in the first place.

This was especially true for students who had planned to enter the financial services industry, where the jobs were most scarce. “Was it just for the money? That’s not a good enough reason,” says Dowd. “They had to take stock of themselves and be more open to other opportunities.” That kind of soul-searching has been a positive for business schools and business students alike, because it helped students make sure they were in their programs for the right reasons.

Idea: A Four-Stage Approach

Bentley University created its HIRE Education program to ensure that its undergraduates receive individualized career development. HIRE is delivered in four stages: Explore, Experiment, Experience, and Excel. In each stage, students must perform the items on a checklist. In Explore, freshmen participate in self-assessments, career advising appointments, and career exploration activities such as “Success in the City,” in which faculty take students on daytrips to New York City to learn more about a company’s culture.

In the Experiment phase, sophomores research companies, conduct informational interviews, and choose their majors. In Experience, juniors complete internships; and, in Excel, seniors fine-tune their résumés and interview skills and prepare to transition from the classroom to the workplace.

The school hired a full-time freshman advisor, who is “the gateway” to the rest of the program, says Susan Brennan. “Students can’t declare their majors until they meet with the advisor and go through their checklists,” she says. “That step prepares them for the entire process.”

But schools in larger metropolitan areas have had an easier time in this respect, compared to schools that have had a more local or regional reach. After the economic downturn, regional schools upped their engagement activities with alumni, advisory board members, corporate partners, local executives, community organizations, and even the parents of their students, says Dowd.

To boost its corporate relationships, the Neeley School created the Neeley Connection, a monthly roundtable discussion. Each discussion is held at one participant’s company, which presents a case study of a problem. MBA students also attend the meeting dressed in business attire; they take 20 minutes to break into teams and propose their own solutions for the presenting organization. “The companies get free MBA analyses and our students gain visibility,” says Stoker.

The London Business School also stepped up its efforts to network with employers. Two years ago, it launched its “Get Connected” campaign, which takes advantage of the “six degrees of separation” rule—the concept that everyone is connected to everyone else through no more than six contacts. LBS career services asked everyone on campus to provide their connections. “We felt that there was someone in everyone’s network who would like to hire an LBS graduate,” says Fiona Sandford, director of career services for London Business School in the United Kingdom.

The campaign was so successful in connecting LBS graduates to jobs, the school continues that approach today. It even has created a “Get Connected” page at, where employers can find recruiting information and anyone can fill out a form to share job leads.

Social Media Savvy

For years, career counselors have been touting the importance of networking to students. But perhaps for the first time, students are getting the message. “They’re finally realizing that 80 percent of jobs really do come from networking,” says TCU’s Stoker. Because much of that networking today starts with social media, the Neeley School’s career services office offers an annual course to teach students how to use LinkedIn most effectively as a springboard for their personal networking efforts.

Career services no longer can communicate with students via a single medium—print or e-mail or Facebook or phone calls—and be effective, says Stoker. By employing multiple communication strategies, counselors can be sure to reach every student with at least one.

Stoker learned that lesson a few years ago, when she could not get a recent graduate to return her phone or e-mail messages. “Finally, one of my student assistants asked me, ‘Did you try him on Facebook?’” She sent a message to him through his Facebook account, and he responded within five minutes. “That was an ‘aha’ moment for me, when I realized that I need to reach out to them wherever they are.”

Idea: A Day In the Life

In 2009, TCU’s Neeley School of Business offered any company that had posted a position, attended a presentation, or participated in an event over the last two years an “MBA for a Day.” Although some companies were wary, because they had no jobs available, most companies agreed. Some hosted several students to shadow executives or go on field visits. Neeley staff coached students as they would for any job or informational interview. Students researched the companies online and learned more about the people they would be meeting.

At the end, some students were offered positions. One company created an internship for a student whom it had interviewed the previous summer, but turned down. Neeley now holds its “MBA for a Day” event every spring.

Just as students must learn to better leverage social media, so must career counselors. Today, if information isn’t broadcast to students over social media outlets, many will never receive it, says Harrell of Thunderbird. “So many different things are fighting for the attention of Millennials,” he says. “For that reason, we’re taking announcements that normally would have been offered through our weekly newsletter or our in-house job posting and application system and pushing them out through social media.”

Thunderbird has hired a full-time employee to communicate career news to students through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. She sends out six to eight tweets a day, just to make sure students don’t miss an opportunity, Harrell says.

But even so, Facebook can’t replace face-to-face communication for getting to know students as individuals, says Sanford of LBS. “We’re not relying solely on social media, because we find it’s more effective to meet students for coffee for ten minutes,” she says. “They nearly die of shock when the director of career services calls them out of the blue.”

Harrell agrees that as important as social networking has become, it never will replace personal interactions. “As career service professionals we must keep up with new media to make sure our students get the information, but one-on-one work still must be done via e-mail, telephone, and in-person contact. You can’t counsel someone through Twitter and Facebook.”

Idea: A Week of Recruitment

During the ninth week of its fall semester, Thunderbird Global School of Management offers Career Week, during which regular courses and exams are suspended. The career office conducts job search workshops and provides guest speakers, including immigration attorneys who can help international students find work in different countries. Employers visit campus for a career fair and interviews.

“Arizona is not a big destination for major recruiters, so we condense the recruitment process to one week,” says Kip Harrell. “Companies take three days to share company information and gather student résumés. Then they make their selections and conduct interviews at the end of the week.”

From Counselors To Consultants

These outreach efforts have had an unexpected side effect—one that career services directors don’t always relish. Some employers now view them not only as career facilitators, but also as hiring consultants and headhunters.

Harrell of Thunderbird has seen a significant uptick in companies that ask his office to help with the selection process. “They’re asking us to choose the top eight or ten people who will match a position, but they don’t want to post the job,” he says. “That’s problematic because we want to represent all students equally. We believe it’s up to students to succeed or fail.”

Not to mention that providing selection advice can prove time-consuming and place career counselors in difficult positions. They want to conserve their resources, but they don’t want to jeopardize the relationships with employers they’ve worked so hard to create.

On the other hand, there could be a positive side to this trend, says Deanna Fuehne, executive director of the career manage¬ment center at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “I see us as consultants,” she says. “I want companies to come to us to ask us about MBAs and how to recruit them. I want to help them start thinking about hiring MBAs.”

To encourage the involvement of companies that don’t traditionally hire MBAs, the career management center at the Jones School invites those companies to participate in low-commitment interactions with students. For example, the school conducts action learning projects, which require all first-year MBAs to work for a semester with Houston companies, including smaller firms and startups. That’s a free service to companies, but more important, says Fuehne, it’s a preview of what MBAs can accomplish.

“I once spoke to an executive at Waste Management who told me they don’t hire MBAs because they couldn’t afford them. But I’ve worked with them for years to show them why they should reconsider,” says Fuehne. “They need to know that MBAs are important—they don’t necessarily need to hire them from us.”

Getting Past ‘Phone Fear’

Career services’ new emphasis on outreach extends to students as well. Students now are given more training in networking, elevator pitches, and conversation. At Thunderbird, says Harrell, students are coached in the art of cold calling.

The Neeley School also is putting an emphasis on training students to sell themselves and their skills to employers over the phone. But this emphasis has brought to light an unexpected problem among today’s Millennials: “phone fear.” While students of this generation may never be without their cell phones, they rarely use them to talk, says Stoker.

“These students text and use social media so much, they’re used to collecting their thoughts before blurting something out. They’ve either missed or lost the skill of telephone conversation,” says Stoker. “I’m seeing this more and more, and not just in 18- to 22-year-olds. I’m also seeing it with experienced professionals who are 28 to 33 years old.”

Stoker has found it increasingly necessary to help students overcome phone fear and improve their telephone personas. For example, Stoker worked with one international student who did not want to call employers because he wasn’t comfortable holding a phone conversation in English; she helped him write and practice scripts for different situations so he would gain confidence on the phone. She helped another student, who had been an actor in the past, to think of phone conversation like scripted dialogue in a play. She recommended The Play of Your Life, a career coaching book by Colleen Sabatino, to help him through the challenge.

“Every year I find that I have to be a life coach as well as a career coach, to help students see what missing piece is holding them back. And every year, we find that piece is changing,” she says. “We have to tweak our approaches to suit different groups of students. It’s probably one of the biggest challenges we face.”

Careers in the Curriculum

In today’s market, job seekers need more than telephone etiquette to land positions. They need to present well-rounded personas. “Recruiters are asking for students with communication skills, emotional intelligence, the whole package,” says Sandford of London Business School.

Harrell of Thunderbird agrees that career services has become much more about developing students as people, not just prospects. “Look at any GMAC survey over the last ten years and you’ll find that recruiters are putting more and more weight on communication and interpersonal skills.” For that reason, Thunderbird is planning to offer intensive communication boot camps designed to help students improve their confidence and poise in social interactions. Included will be assessments and exercises to help non-native English speakers improve their enunciation and confidence during interviews.

Designing such expanded programs in career development was “unheard of just a few years ago,” says Dowd of Daniels College. But today, formal courses are becoming necessary to ensure students will meet employers’ expectations.

Idea: A Sit-Down With Students

This spring, London Business School launched “Spring into Action,” a campaign to connect with its own students. All 30 staff members of the LBS career services office spent the week holding one-on-one meetings with each and every student.

“We wanted to make sure we knew where in the world they wanted to work, what they were looking for, what their Plan B was. Then, we assigned each one a career services representative to act as an advocate who’d make sure they were getting the right coaching with the right people,” says Fiona Sandford. “We realize that we can only help students if they talk to us.”

This fall, Daniels College is launching its Daniels Career Management Program. “We start with students before they arrive on campus, work with them in a concerted way during orientation, assign them coaches, and offer programs throughout their one- or two-year time with us,” says Dowd. “We assist them in moving through the natural stages of career planning and job search that everyone goes through multiple times in their lives.” The program also is open to alumni, and the most relevant content will be made available online.

Other schools are going a step further—offering required courses for credit. After all, students place priority on activities that count toward their degrees. Without the motivation of a grade, students often put their own professional development on the back burner, says Stoker.

That was once the case at Neeley, where students could opt out of career workshops at the beginning of their programs. If they didn’t sign opt-out forms, the workshops were required, Stoker explains. But under the system, she says, it was a struggle to remind students of their commitment.

The school addressed the issue by launching its first for-credit career development course in the fall of 2010. In just its first offering, the course “has transformed the rest of the year for us, because students took it so seriously,” says Stoker. Held in the first eight weeks of the fall semester, the course provides a solid foundation for career development work the students complete during the rest of their programs. In the future, the course will be tweaked to make time for even more activities, including blocking out an entire week so that students can plan trips to Wall Street.

Idea: A Different Kind of Job Hunt

As part of its Immersion Experience, Rice University’s Jones School sends students out on a scavenger hunt in which students are given a list of CEOs and Jones alumni at Houston companies. Students must visit each CEO on the list and ask him or her to sign a copy of the company’s last financial statement. It’s a way for students to have a low-stress chance to speak with these business leaders, says Deanna Fuehne.

To avoid crowding students’ fall schedules, the Jones School launched a summer online professional development program two years ago. Running from the beginning of June to mid-July, the course must be completed by all incoming first-year MBAs before they come to campus. As part of the course, students develop résumés and cover letters, reach out to alumni to ask questions about different industries, and write essays about their career aspirations.

When students arrive in August, they already have their professional portfolios in place. That allows them to focus on the deeper, more intangible elements of the career development process during their programs, says Fuehne. She plans to make the online program available via apps for the iPad and iTouch, to make it even more accessible to students.

‘The Next Stage’

According to these career services directors, the hiring outlook for their students has improved, which has resulted in more job postings and internships and higher placement rates overall. For example, students in Bentley’s classes of 2009 and 2010 have had placement rates of 98 percent and 99 percent, respectively, six months after graduation.

Bentley hopes to keep those rates high among alumni long after they graduate, says Brennan. “We’ve implemented a strategy to stay in touch with alumni to make clear that we are offering lifelong career services,” she says. Staying in touch in this way helps both new grads and alums, she emphasizes. By using resources such as LinkedIn, alumni can keep the school apprised of open positions at their companies and take advantage of career services when they seek new positions themselves.

“Ultimately, I see this time as the next stage in the development of business schools,” says Dowd of Daniels. “The economy has forced us to find new opportunities to spread awareness of the value of a graduate business education.”

Banks, consulting firms, and Fortune 500 companies have known about this value for a long time, but because of the economy, career services offices have been encouraged to spread the word to startups and other small businesses, say Dowd and her colleagues. Plus, the down economy has proven to be an opportunity to open students’ eyes to a wealth of opportunities that may have otherwise escaped their attention. With broader and more targeted strategies, business schools aren’t just getting their students hired. They’re showing the world what their graduates—and business education—truly have to offer.